Rosewater is one of those classic cases where you see the trailer, pretty much know how the story is going to pan out, but still hope that you leave the cinema with something extra, a sense of hope that stays with you or added political awareness. Rosewater is disappointing in that it feels like it is plays its subject matter a bit too safe, and as a result is fairly forgettable once one has left the theatre.”
Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal plays the lead role of Maziar Bahari. The memoir of this real-life figure, Then They Came for Me, is the source of inspiration for the film. Bahari is a London-based Iranian journalist who works for Newsweek magazine. Sent to Iran to cover the 2011 presidential election there, Bahari decides to stay on to cover the protests that follow the election, in spite of the hesitations expressed by his pregnant wife (Golshifteh Farahani) and his mother (Academy Award nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo). Bahari also takes part in a satirical interview with Jason Jones (as himself) for The Daily Show (from which the director, Jon Stewart, is shortly to retire the host). As a result, Bahari is arrested and held at Evin Prison, accused of being an American spy. Inspired by his father and sister, who were also imprisoned by Iranian authorities, Bahari tries to remain hopeful in the face of despair.
It is pretty clear that an American comedian/television host wanting to helm this sincere project was probably going to be a mistake. One can tell that Stewart is trying for his debut, but the more complex and interrogative exploration of the subject matter is simply not there. It seems a strange thing to say, but the torture scenes are not overly-effective since they do not involve the physically brutal torture that has been portrayed on screen previously by the likes of Zero Dark Thirty and the television series Homeland.
Stewart’s strength as a director is more apparent in the parts of the film that deal with relationships between people, for example Bahari’s sympathetic attitude towards a group of young men who have stolen satellite dishes to educate themselves about what is happening in the world. The relationship between Bahari and his wife is also portrayed in a heartfelt and touching way. Bernal plays a compelling lead while Kim Bodnia as the torturer ‘Rosewater’, Dimitri Leonidas as Bahari’s guide, Davood, and Haluk Bilginer as Baba Akbar all deliver strong performances. It would seem that working in drama rather than political subject matter is Stewart’s strength and, as he intends to direct again, one would hope he chooses a more suitable project next time.